A contrast between the Honda and the Sprite
In the white corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have the challenger from Japan. A light, lively newcomer from the Orient full of new ideas, perhaps a bit suspect on staying power over 15 rounds. In the green corner, an old stalwart friend, rugged and agricultural maybe but with proven stamina. The British defender has put on some weight recently so this is a catchweight contest. May the best car win.
The awaited introduction of the Honda S800 sports car to the British market at Earls Court last year caused speculation out of proportion to the share of the market it might achieve. Order books were filled and deliveries began shortly after, bringing a new style of motoring to our roads. Both B.M.C. and Triumph opted at the same time to increase engine size into the 1,300-c.c. class, so that the “Spridget” and Spitfire gave slightly better performance in a lazier, more effort-free manner. In contrast, the Honda engine gives 70 b.h.p. (gross) from 800 c.c., the highest power/capacity ratio of any car offered to the public in volume sale.
At a quick glance there is little difference between the Honda and Sprite, though the Japanese car is 6 in. shorter. Neither car will carry a decent-sized suitcase in the boot, though both have a fair amount of space behind the seats. The Honda’s boot stays open automatically, and the 7¾-gallon fuel tank is situated forward (with the spare wheel under the floor), giving an uninterrupted space of 49 in. wide, 12 in. deep and 15 in. front-to-back, a capacity of 6.1 cu. ft. The Sprite, which we also drove for comparison, does not have an automatic stay on the boot. The luggage area is badly planned, with the spare wheel in the centre, a sloping rear wall, and a petrol filler pipe impeding the space, so that it is much more a soft-baggage compartment measuring 42 in. by 6 in. by 24 in., a capacity of 4.2 cu. ft.
The Honda’s engine is the talking-point, being an all-alloy three-roller-bearing 2-o.h.c. unit fed by two twin-choke Keihin carburetters. Surprisingly it is an under-square unit with 60-mm. bore and 70-mm. stroke, giving a 4-cylinder capacity of 791 c.c. Also surprising is the fact that the compression ratio has been kept down to 9.2, so that, with the heat-dispersant qualities of the alloy head, commercial grade fuel can be used.
The seats in the Japanese car are rather firm, while providing good support, and the suspension on our test car was also firm. Various types of independent rear suspension were tried during development but the car is in production with a rigid axle, twin trailing radius arms and a transverse linkage bar, while front suspension is effected by wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars. The result is firm suspension, harsh over rough roads, and our test car at least was rather uncomfortable at low speed on average roads. There is an unwelcome amount of feed-back through the rack-and-pinion steering, noticed even at high speed.
On the credit side, the handling is very good indeed. There is practically no roll at all and the Honda is directionally stable, understeering slightly. The brakes are superb, the gearbox ratios well chosen and quick to select.
Although there is a distinct shortage of torque from the engine the ultra-low axle ratio (4.71), giving 11.8 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in top gear, ensures clean pick-up at low speed, and the car will pull smoothly from as little as 2,000 r.p.m. in high gear. However, maximum power is developed at 8,000 r.p.m. so the driver in a hurry is well rewarded by using the gearbox freely and keeping the engine turning above 6,000 r.p.m., the peak of the rather meagre torque curve.
Though not excessively noisy, the sound of a peak-revving engine is bound to make heads turn and one cannot use full performance just anywhere. On the open road, the Honda is a joy for any sportsman, exceptionally well mannered in every department concerning safety, with the sole proviso that, needing 6,000 r.p.m. to cruise at 70 m.p.h., it is necessarily the more tiring on a long journey.
Renewed acquaintance with the Sprite was a marked contrast. The seats are much more softly padded but gave less lateral support when cornering. The steering wheel is too close to the body, although both cars had plenty of leg-room for a six-footer. Steering is a bit heavier but more direct, and in a straight line the ride is certainly more comfortable.
It was strange to return to the antique wide-ratio gearbox, still with no synchromesh on 1st, though light and quick in action. This is a much more beefy engine, however, a detuned version of the 1275S unit, delivering substantial torque at 3,000 r.p.m. and 65 b.h.p. (net) at 6,000 r.p.m. (the limit of the orange sector on the tachometer). Fed with 4-star petrol it returns about 30 m.p.g., so the running costs between the two cars are quite comparable.
While the cart-springs give a good ride, the handling of the car is unsophisticated. On good roads the Sprite settles down into an understeering state with roll-oversteer threatening but predictable, and bumps will unsettle the car more than somewhat without endangering control. The brakes are excellent, and generally the car feels rugged, reliable, and perhaps not very exciting. Other points which come to mind are the inwardly-angled dials (all the latest features from Maranello here!) and the inadequate fuel range with the 6-gallon tank. The axle ratio gives approximately 14.7 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m., so that 4,800 r.p.m. are showing at 70 m.p.h. There is a fairly loud, muffled exhaust note to the Sprite, of which the driver may be blissfully unaware when the hood is raised.
Contrary to appearance, the Sprite is the lighter car (1,510 lb. “dry” compared with 1,556 lb.). The Sprite costs £672 in Britain, plus £15 for the optional heater, and surely the car deserves something better than the squeaky Dunlop Gold Seal tyres, which do nothing for the handling, even though it is the cheapest model of its type?
The Longbridge product suffers rather less from wind noise at speed when the hood is erected, and would be the car we should choose for a long journey, especially on the Continent. It takes 50 seconds to put the hood down, or about two minutes including the time taken to fix the neat cover, and one minute 20 seconds to put the hood up. The two catches on the windscreen rail did not line up properly, or this time could have been reduced.
Costing £779, the Honda is well-equipped, including a heater and Dunlop SP3 tyres. The fuel tank capacity gives it a just-adequate range. Like the Sprite, it needs servicing every 3,000 miles, but there are less greasing points. Obviously it accelerates better, reaching 60 m.p.h. in less than 14 seconds, whereas the Sprite takes about a second longer, but there is little difference in the top speeds. It takes 38 seconds to lower the hood and 45 seconds to erect it.
If the £100 price differential were spent on making the Sprite go faster and handle better, it would be a thoroughly potent machine, but still the character would be different. With its remarkable little engine the Honda is bound to appeal to sportsmen, especially those with the opportunity to drive fast without being detected, so the choice is a straight one between innovation and tradition. — M. L. C.